420 Characters



Illustration by Lou Beach.

The stories you are about to encounter were written as status updates on a large social-networking site. These updates were limited to 420 characters, including letters, spaces, and punctuation. The author hopes you enjoy them.

I KEEP MY FRIENDS IN A BOX under the bed, categorized and separated, secured by blue rubber bands that originally held broccoli. One day I removed the lid and saw that they had all turned into little bones. I strung them together into a long strand that I looped around and around my neck.

TURNS OUT she wasn’t really pregnant, just doing a number, needing someone to hold onto. Hell, I’ve been married four times, I sussed it out. Anyways, I cut her loose in Bismarck and got a job on a road crew. Saw a big gray wolf deep in a field of snow. He sniffed the air and was gone.

THERE IS A PLACE I visit, where no one else goes. The rocks are slippery and sharp, the drop to the dark sea below makes me dizzy. The sun never muscles its way through the gang of clouds that hover overhead shedding a mist that plasters my thin hair to my head, makes me turn up my collar. No, you can’t go with me, I don’t want a sandwich to take, thermos of hot chocolate, though your asking may keep me home.

THE FLOOR MANAGER cued him for the break. “When we return—a report on elder abuse.” He stood and stretched, sat back down when the stylist came to fix his makeup, adjust his hair. “You’re so handsome,” she whispered as she dropped two pills into his waiting hand. “You’re killing me,” he said and put his hand on her ass.

I DON’T KNOW HOW she tracked me from Bismarck. Maybe she followed my scent. Anyway I was working in Waukesha putting up vinyl siding and I look down and there she is, looking up at me with a hand on the ladder. “Hey.” “Hey.” I was still a little pissed at that pregnancy bullshit she tried to pull, but there was something about the curve of her neck and that dumbass gap-toothed grin …

I WENT TO HIGH SCHOOL WITH THE KING. Well, actually he was a grade ahead, but I’d see him in the halls surrounded by his bodyguards disguised as varsity football players, as if no one knew who he was, for crissakes. He always arrived late and left early, sat alone in the cafeteria. I felt sorry for him and one time approached him at lunch, offered him my sweet roll. He said something in French, then closed his eyes.

Illustration by Lou Beach.

I WET my lips with the tip of my tongue, leave it protruding for a beat, reel it back in. Is she watching? She must know I do it for her. Is she watching? I sit up straight, order whiskey, no rocks. Is she watching? I laugh, make a joke. Is she watching? I walk to the men’s room, saunter. Is she watching? I return, swing my leg over the back of the chair, knock over a bottle of beer. Damn, is she watching? Is she watching?

SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL, fragile, and afraid, a peacock in a hailstorm. We sat together on the couch, waiting for the car horn. It sounded at last and I held her hand as we pushed through the snow in the driveway. I turned away after I buckled her into the back seat. Don wouldn’t look at me, but reached back, touched her knee. I watched them drive off, then walked back to the house, careful not to step into her footprints.

AFTER SHE FLED he became his own wife, ironing in his underwear, dusting the shelves, moving the figurines to the dining-room table then replacing them carefully when he’d finished waxing the cabinet. Wearing her apron he often made casseroles. Sometimes he’d sit on her closet floor and move his face through her dresses, like a dog searching in a field of high grass.

Lou Beach illustrator, artist, and writer. Excerpted from 420 Characters by Lou Beach, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in December, 2011.